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Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Reviews - Alan Bennett: Writing Home and Untold Stories

Alan Bennett: Writing Home and Untold Stories
Alan Bennett
Writing Home (4*)
Untold Stories (4*)

Writing Home is a miscellaneous collection of autobiography, memoir, diaries, book reviews, prefaces to published plays etc., mainly from the nineteen-seventies and -eighties. It includes the original, enjoyable account of the recently filmed 'The Lady in the Van', hilarious memories of Russell Harty and diary extracts from periods during filming. (June 2016)

Untold Stories is similar. It begins with a revealing and fascinating memoir of growing up in Leeds during the nineteen thirties and forties, followed by diary extracts from 1996-2004. The last third is a collection of pieces about the theatre, broadcast media, art and architecture, and three more recent experiences, including his treatment for cancer. Both books interest and entertain throughout. (November 2016)

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Be Prepared

Akela we’ll do our best
Dyb – dyb – dyb
Dob – dob – dob

I never knew until I looked it up that it was known as the Grand Howl, that we-e-e-e-ll do-o-o-o o-o-o-u-u-r was supposed to sound like howling wolves greeting the Old Wolf Akela, or that dyb stood for ‘do your best’ and dob for ‘do our best’. It was simply what we did. The wolf-cubs were just peculiar: the shouting, the jumping up and down and the two-fingered salute that went with it.

Wolf Cubs Grand Howl and Salute

Geoffrey Bullard talked me into joining. He had been promoted to Seconder and said I could be in his Six. He would teach me the Cub Scout Promise. What he really meant was that he would strut his Seconder’s stripe on his fat arm and act superior.

                I promise to do my best
                To do my Duty to God and the Queen
                To obey the law of the Wolf Cub pack
                And to do a good turn for somebody every day.

I became a Tenderpad and got the uniform: the green jersey, grey flannel shorts, long socks with garter tabs and green peaked cap with yellow piping. On my left sleeve was a coloured felt triangle to show I belonged to the Tawny Six – ‘his’ Six according to Geoffrey Bullard. It all looked pretty smart, especially new: perfect to get lots of jobs during Bob-a-Job Week. We knocked on doors to earn money for cub funds, but as I had gone round with Geoffrey Bullard, he insisted our earnings be recorded on his card, not mine, because I had only recently joined.

Wolf Cubs Job Done

We were in the ‘Yellow Neckers’. We wore yellow neckerchiefs tied with leather woggles. They gave us a sunny countenance. Elsewhere in town were the ‘Red Neckers’. They were from rougher streets. Their neckerchiefs reflected red and angry in their faces. You kept well away from them when you were on your own in uniform.

The ‘Yellow Neckers’ met in a musty room above a hidden-away garage, up a creaky wooden staircase. It’s a wonder the floor never gave way with all the jumping, howling and rough games. We tried to convince Akela and Baloo – the two women who led the pack – that we were worthy of shiny silver stars to fix to our caps, and proficiency badges for our sleeves. They promoted strong feelings of loyalty and achievement. The more you had, the more you belonged. But assessments could be delegated to Sixer Leaders or Seconders. Geoffrey Bullard seemed to make it a point of principle that nothing I did was ever good enough.

The stars and badges were much the same as they remain today. For the first star you had to be able to perform a list of patriotic and practical tasks: sing God Save The Queen, describe the Union Jack, list the national saints, tie simple knots, walk with a book on your head, throw and catch a ball, perform a forward roll, tell the time, keep yourself clean and tidy, grow a plant and answer questions on the pedestrian’s part of the Highway Code. I could do all of that (and still can) but was never quite patriotic or practical enough for the second star which required swimming, tying knots, climbing trees, using the telephone, lighting fires and treating wounds. A group of us spent one summer evening at a telephone box trying to ring Akela. It was not as easy as you might think. It went beyond knowing how to press Button B in the hope that someone had forgotten their leftover coins. We mumbled self-consciously into the mouthpiece as none of us had a phone at home.

Wolf Cub Badges
Baden-Powell's Original Twelve Proficiency Badges.
By 1960 there were many more.

The proficiency badges were brightly coloured cloth triangles to parade on your right arm: blue, yellow, red or green according to whether they reflected character, handicraft, service or health. They came with matching stickers to save on a progress card. Cyclist (health green), Collector (character blue) and Reader (handicraft yellow) were no problem at all to anyone with a bicycle and stamp album who went to the Grammar School, but others were more challenging. Geoffrey Bullard had two or three rows but I managed no more than half a dozen at most. Never in a million years was I going to get the badges for artist, athlete or entertainer. I managed the sewing badge though. I took it home for my mother to fix to my sleeve.

Wolf Cub Badges

After a year or so I had one star on my cap and a few proficiency badges. Most of the older lads had either left, moved up to the scouts or been expelled for smoking (they might have got away with it had they not told Akela they were practising for their smokers badge). I began to harbour hopes of promotion. Geoffrey Bullard had been made Sixer Leader and there was a vacancy for his Seconder. It was my turn. I had been waiting as long as anyone.

Akela surveyed the raised hands uncertain who to choose. She invited Geoffrey Bullard to make a suggestion. He looked around the pack, then at each member of his Six, then smugly down at his own two stripes. He turned back to me as if about to say my name, but instead, pure evil in his voice, he said:

“Harvey Gelder.”

I didn’t go much after that. I escaped to the scouts while Geoffrey Bullard stayed in the cubs as a three-stripe Senior Sixer.

I came across other bastards like Geoffrey Bullard in later years, usually causing damage in the public sector. They always put self-interest before cooperation. Be prepared. Avoid them if you can.

Saturday, 12 November 2016


Trump dictionary definition

No matter that he is going to be President of the United States. Across the North of England, including in our family, the word trump will remain an acceptable, almost polite substitute for the four letter word beginning with ‘f’ and ending with ‘t’ which to my mind is so coarse and common I cannot even bring myself to write it.

“Poo! Who’s trumped?” my mother would say on walking into the room where my brother and I were playing. We could say that too, but if either of us had used the f-synonym we would have had our faces slapped as hard as if we had used that other f-word – not that we had ever heard either in those innocent times. 

I was around eleven when I first heard the more common term for trumping. It came from an adult. We were on holiday near Southampton and had driven to London airport (not yet called Heathrow) to wave my aunt and cousins off to Aden. We waited inside a high glass-walled enclosure for their BOAC Britannia to take to the air, sheltered from the roar of the engines but not from the acrid smell of the fuel. It was close and stuffy, and the kerosene hung around us mixing with the pong from the clothes of a family friend (Uncle Jimmy) who had been sick on the train travelling down with my aunt. To make matters worse my brother periodically kept discharging his own contribution into the atmosphere. We used to eat meat in those days.

I was mortified when another aero-watcher, a middle aged man, turned and forcefully told me to stop farting. I had no idea what he meant. The embarrassment stemmed not from what I had been falsely accused of but from the fact that a complete stranger had spoken to me.

Hillman Minx
On another early nineteen-sixties holiday we drove to Slapton, Devon, in a hired Hillman Minx from Glews Garage. It was a long journey from Yorkshire in those pre-motorway days, and as dusk fell we were still miles from our lodgings. My brother and I lay on the back seat comatose with headaches, and trumping.

“Good God!” We knew we were in trouble because my mother rarely blasphemed, but the northern words that followed were entirely innocuous.

“It smells as if somebody’s babbaed themselves.”

“Can we have a drink of water?”

“No. You’ll be widdling all the way. You’ll have pickled yerselves before we get there.”

“I could do with a jimmy riddle,” said my dad from the driving seat.

Like most people from the South, my wife had never come across this usage of the word trump, but she soon picked it up, as of course have our children. It seems more humorous than offensive.

I am convinced it used to appear in a dictionary we had at Junior School. We used to look it up and giggle. “Trump”, it read, “a small explosion between the legs.” Perhaps I am mistaken because I cannot find it anywhere now. I am told, however, that the Oxford English has the definition: “to give forth a trumpet-like sound; spec. to break wind audibly (slang or vulgar).”

But as for “President Trump”, to me it sounds more of a command or insult than a title of high status. Will the policies that emerge during his term of office be known as Trumpism, or will they just be plain trumpery?